The skin is the largest organ in the body. It protects us from the environment, guards us from injury and infection, helps regulate our body temperature, and gives us our sense of touch. The skin varies in thickness from the eyelids (thinnest) to the palms and soles.
While not a serious health problem, dry skin is an uncomfortable condition. The skin becomes especially dry and itchy in the winter when humidity is lower, and in arid climates. The most common symptom of dry skin is itchiness. In fact, dry skin is by far the most common cause of itchiness without an obvious rash.
The skin becomes drier as we age. Sebaceous (oil-producing) glands become less active, the capacity to hold water in the skin decreases and the skin becomes thinner and finely wrinkled. The number of blood vessels in our skin decreases, and we start to lose the youthful color and glow. Moreover, cells are replaced more slowly and repair themselves less effectively, which can result in slower wound healing.
The environment can greatly accelerate these natural changes. For instance, cigarette smoking and excessive exposure to the sun can cause the skin to age faster. This in turn can give our skin a tough, weathered appearance and causes pigmentation and other common skin conditions. Drinking excess alcoholic beverages plays havoc with the skin. Deodorant soaps, alcohol-based toners, and products that contain fragrance can irritate dry, sensitive skin.
Some suggestions to help prevent dry skin are:
- Avoid using harsh soaps such as shower gels and deodorant soaps that are drying to the skin. Use mild, defatted soaps such as Dove, Vanicream, Basis, Eucerin or Neutrogena, especially on your face. Any liquid is more drying to your skin than a bar of the same soap. Soaps with no fragrance are least likely to cause allergic reactions.
- Using your hands or a very soft washcloth when you shower may help decrease drying. Use warm, not hot water which is more likely to dry the skin, use a lighter spray, and decrease the duration of your shower to five minutes.
- After a bath or shower, let your skin dry naturally as much as possible, then pat or dry the skin with a towel, but don’t rub. Leave some water on your skin and apply a moisturizer all over your body. Moisturizers, also known as emollients or lubricants, prevent dry air from absorbing water from your skin and help hold moisture in the skin for a longer time. Vanicream, Aveeno, Moisturel, Lubriderm, Curel and Eucerin are examples of good moisturizers.
- Avoid sunlight, including tanning booths. If you are exposed to the sun, wear protective clothing, and use a moisturizer and a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Many cosmetics now contain this sun protection factor. In addition to keeping your skin moist, these measures help prevent the risk of skin cancer.
- Drink plenty of water to help moisturize your skin.
Many people have trouble with dry, cracked heels, and moisturizers alone won’t help; this problem needs a double approach. Using both abrasives and moisturizers should remedy the situation. This helps the old dead layers of skin flake off and get new skin in its place. It may take a matter of weeks, but eventually it will get back to normal. Immediately after bathing and toweling off, use a pumice cream followed by a heavy moisturizing cream such as Vanicream or Eucerin. This approach sometimes helps soften corns also. For dry nail beds, using a cuticle oil twice a day can do wonders. Rub in well.
Dry air increases the evaporation of water from the skin; try to increase the humidity in your house if it is dry—even having open pans of water in your rooms will help.